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Bid whist, a card game of bidding with partners to earn points, originated in London. Today it's a favorite among African-Americans. The game of acuity and trash talking is played at family and social gatherings and has come to serve as both a generational and cultural bridge. Greg Morrison is co-author of "Rise and Fly: Tall Tales and Mostly True Rules of Bid Whist." He spoke with NPR's Ed Gordon.
ED GORDON reporting:
Greg Morrison, welcome, man. Congratulations on the book.
Mr. GREG MORRISON (Co-author, "Rise and Fly: Tall Tales and Mostly True Rules of Bid Whist"): Thank you very much. It's been a lot of fun.
GORDON: The title "Rise and Fly," again for people that do not know the phenomenon of bid whist or are unfamiliar with the terminology, this is all a part of particularly how African-Americans play it. When you lose, typically there are other folks sitting around waiting to get on that table, and it's time for you to, in this vernacular...
Mr. MORRISON: Rise and fly.
GORDON: ...rise and fly.
Mr. MORRISON: You've got to get up. You've got to go somewhere, but you have to get away from the table.
GORDON: And it's interesting, in one section of the book where you talked with a woman who plays so intensely that when you lose at her house, you go out the back door. You literally have to leave the room, go out the back door, out through the kitchen and stand on the back porch until you're allowed back in the house after someone else has lost. All kidding aside, there are folks who really play this game as if it's life or death.
Mr. MORRISON: I was at a bid whist tournament in Atlanta and watching people, and these folks came in from Houston, from Los Angeles, from Detroit, from New York, from Miami. Even folks who had evacuated from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast managed to get to Atlanta for this tournament, and they play it as if their lives depended on it. It's a bit eerie at times because I love the game, but these people are seriously intense. And there are some people who will play morning, noon and night. My grandmother was one of those. My favorite story about her is she would leave the house on Friday evening with a bag that had her toiletries, her medicine, a change of clothes, come home Sunday night, sometimes Monday morning, and she had gone to play bid whist all weekend.
GORDON: What's remarkable is I often see young people play this game, and these are some of the same young people who swear to you that they don't understand math, can't get math, can't get science. And when you watch bid, much of it is true just memory, arithmetic, math, logic, etc.
Mr. MORRISON: There's also a degree of strategy: card counting, trying to figure what your partner has vs. what your opponents have. Some of these people, if they applied those same skills to, say, practice of law or business or medicine or, say, anything else, could really do some interesting things, and some of them do use the same principles.
GORDON: One of the things that you cannot get away with in a true bid whist game is to play it without talking trash. Talk to us about...
Mr. MORRISON: Yes.
GORDON: ...the accompaniment of trash talking.
Mr. MORRISON: Well, come on. I mean, the expression `running a Boston' is the classic example of class talking. It goes back to the days when the waiters and the porters on the trains would play bid whist at night after everyone else in the train had gone to sleep. And if they're on, say, the Southern Crescent run going from New Orleans back to New York and on to Boston, they would play cards all night. And the running expression was `I'd beat that guy so bad, I'd beat him from New Orleans to Boston,' ergo `running a Boston.' And that's just the beginning of it. It is best, however, not to talk trash until after you've won the hand, because eating crow can be very painful.
GORDON: And one of the things that I found most interesting--and you raise it in the book--is where this game actually--the roots started from. Many people, I think, in the black community would just naturally assume this has been kind of a black-raised card game, and it is not. It really stems from the 1700s.
Mr. MORRISON: Yeah, in London. Yeah, it was very popular with the English and the French. The French played a version of the game called troo(ph). The Brits played their own version, and African-Americans really didn't pick up on it until the Civil War, when blacks in the South learned the game from Union troops who were coming through that area and, you know, we attached ourselves to Union armies.
GORDON: Let me ask you this, Greg. Is there anything about this game that you were able to discern from writing this book that makes it so very popular amongst African-Americans?
Mr. MORRISON: It bridges class and culture. I have run across African-Americans of every class level, culture level, educational level, who play whist and will sit down, and everybody from the guy in the three-piece suit to the homeboy or homegirl can sit down and play whist and sit across the table and talk to each other, and sometimes talk about each other. I challenge you to find a black reunion, a black function, whether it's a professional group or a family group, where there isn't a bid whist game going at some point during the event if it's more than two days and you've got more than 20 people there.
GORDON: Well, the book is called "Rise and Fly: Tall Tales and Mostly True Rules of Bid Whist." The co-authors are Yanick Rice Lamb and the gentleman we've been talking to, Greg Morrison.
We thank you very much, Greg, for your time.
Mr. MORRISON: Thank you very much.
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